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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

Behind Bern's Open Source Policy

It's taken a strong political decision to overcome the lock-in inertia of ICT procurement in Bern. Will the policy succeed?

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The city council of Bern, Switzerland's federal capital, decided this month to tell its ICT department that it should use open source wherever possible. This comes at a time when two German cities - Munich and Freiburg - have announced very different outcomes from similar decisions. To understand more about this decision I spoke with Matthias Stuermer, an elected member of the city council who has played a key role in the decision.  

Stuermer is an expert when it comes to enterprise open source. Advising clients on the subject is part of his day job at Ernst and Young. He was elected to Bern's city council in 2008 as a deputy (able to stand in for absences of full members), joined as a full member in 2011 when a vacancy arose and has recently be re-elected as a full member. He has been advocating a move to an open source strategy for the city since being first elected. 

The council has been moving towards favouring open source for some time, but the desire was not matched by the city's ICT department. They continued to prefer proprietary systems, finding it easier to live with the lock-in than to challenge it. The matter came to a head in 2011 when the city set out to procure new enterprise agreements from Microsoft.

With the cost at over 300,000 CHF (about £200k), the council intervened because of a policy that such expenditure needed review, asking questions about the soundness of the procurement and the degree to which alternatives had been sought. Microsoft responded by dropping the price slightly below the review threshold, and the ICT department went ahead with the purchase despite the concerns of it legislators.

Faced with this challenge to its authority, the council decided a full-scale revision of the procurement policy was needed. Stuermer played a key role in drafting a sound -- and watertight -- policy that was passed by the council this year. The city administration is now required to include additional factors in any procurement.

New tenders must be technology-neutral and vendor-neutral and policies must be altered to level the playing field for open source solutions both in the tendering style and in the way the solution is guaranteed. Moreover, if an open source solution for an ICT tender is available, it must be preferred over comparable proprietary solutions. Following this clear signal from the council, the ICT department seems to have changed its approach. It has now appointed a staff member as a single point of contact for open source issues, and seems to be building the skills necessary to implement the new policy.

Stuermer emphasised that the council's new policy was not primarily intended to achieve short-term cost savings. Rather, it aims to reduce the lock-in that has previously limited the city's procurement options, putting architectural control back in the city's hands. That should result in increased empowerment in vendor negotiations, which should lead to the sort of long-term cost savings that Munich reports. The first big test for the new policy is a renewal of the ICT systems in Bern's schools.

There will doubtless be challenges. In other similar situations, the deep pockets of proprietary vendors have allowed them to interfere in the politics of local government and even to make life miserable for the staff and politicians trying to achieve change. Civil servants and politicians I've spoken to have often remarked they prefer to keep their decisions as low-key as possible until it's too late for the lobbying and dirty tricks to have any serious effect. 

Time will tell how well Bern can execute on these good intentions and expertly-devised policies. The focus on long-term strategy, breaking lock-in and being empowered though open source is good, and they seem willing to invest in the technology they are using rather than treating it as "free so no need to spend". I sincerely hope they succeed.


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